Every year, our contributor L’Ultimo Uomo outlines the most exciting young footballers to watch in the following 12 months. Here’s the list of the best wonderkids to follow this year.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3

Matheus Nascimento, 2004, Botafogo (Brazil)

He’s 17 years old, has the surname of Pelé and plays center forward. But he also has hair as soft as wool, so when he runs it dances backward giving him an equine look. For this reason, he was nicknamed “Cavaninho”, given their slender and wiry nature.

He’s been talked about with blind enthusiasm ever since he was so young that only his hair was visible on the pitch. He’s surrounded by the anecdotes of the great South American footballer. It’s said that he always played underage. He scored more than 150 goals for Botafogo's youth team where he became their youngest debutant ever. A year and a half ago he signed his first professional contract, with a €50 million clause in it.

His integration was facilitated by the historic difficulty in Brazilian football to find reliable center forwards. A difficulty that reaches the national team, which is reflective of the structural problems the whole movement has.

Still underage, he already has about fifteen appearances for the first team with Botafogo but has not yet scored. On a physical level, he is still a child and looks like he’s drowning in the black and white jersey. If he manages to make an impact in professional football, it will be because of his already remarkable ability to get away from his marker and for the technical qualities he possesses. "It’s rare to find such a talented young man in front of you," said Renato Portaluppi recently. In 2022, we will certainly see him become more familiar with the space and time afforded in adult football. There is already talk of him being of interest to Real Madrid (which loves to buy Brazilian talents straight from the cradle) and Shakhtar Donetsk (which has a privileged channel with Brazil).

Julio Enciso, 2004, Libertad (Paraguay)

A dribbling striker who is not even 18 years old and still plays in Paraguay, but is already being talked about on the other side of the world - one would say: what could possibly go wrong? Julio Enciso has protruded ears, fine hair and a child's gaze, but when you see him playing it’s impossible not to think – again - of “Kun” Agüero. We are not talking about talent, of course, but that very South American way of keeping the ball between your legs, making it dance between one foot and the other while the pelvis swings to protect the dance.

Enciso is not yet an ‘out and out’ striker (just like Agüero was not when he started out), but not quite someone who sits behind the target man, or even a winger: at the end of the day, he is not yet of age, so who would want to lock him into a defined role already? Perhaps because his path already has the connotations of predestination: in Paraguay, he was talked about when he was still 11 years old and he played on the orange earth streets of his Caaguazú. And since he was 15 his coaches have considered him a total phenomenon. His 2021 was scintillating, if we consider that it’s the first year in which he is really a starter in his team, Club Libertad of Asuncion: 5 assists and above all 8 goals, across the league, Copa Sudamericana and the Libertadores (the latter, however, in the 4-1 defeat against Atletico Nacional). Yet goals do not seem to be the thing that makes Enciso special. His talent is gravitating, and he will always gravitate to the box, so he will be at the fulcrum of games going forwards.

Enciso is not particularly fast, even amongst other players in the Paraguayan league, and this could be a concern regarding his future. How would he do if and when he comes to Europe, even in more sedate leagues like La Liga or Serie A? His awareness with the ball, however, is top of the class: Enciso touches the ball with the class of Argentine attacking midfielders, especially with his right, where he uses all parts of the foot - the sole to attract the opponent, the outside to get rid of it and the inside to dummy a shot or find a teammate inside the area with a lob that looks like a rainbow.

Perhaps the thing that gives you the biggest hope of hearing his name again in the future is the number of things he can do as an attacking midfielder: Enciso is a player who loves to start away from the opponent and then drive and dribble at them, but he’s also an excellent creator; he knows how to link play outside the area but is also able to enter it with the movements of an ‘out and out’ striker. He certainly seems to have excellent creative skills. His 2022 will be only the first of many years in which we will ask ourselves: where can he go in the next 365 days? Or at least there’s hope for him: we just hope his talent is not just hope.

Nico González, Barcelona, 2002 (Spain)

Son of Fran, a Deportivo La Coruña legend in his golden years, Nico Gonzalez shares almost nothing on the pitch with his father, who was a very fast winger or attacking midfielder. Gonzalez, on the other hand, is an almost 190cm midfielder with a big stride. His father, as a player, had been very close to moving to Real Madrid before deciding to stay in Galicia, where he wanted to raise his son. But Nico had other ideas and immediately went to Barcelona. He did not even move when Manchester City knocked on the door - where his father worked in the youth academy. Nico is the same age as Ansu Fati, with whom he played alongside in the youth academy, and soon joined him in the first team in his debut season for the Catalans.

Compared to Ansu, Pedri and Gavi, Nico is still behind these quality youngsters (he has not yet been called up to the senior national team by Luis Enrique, who always seems to want to give anyone a chance) but he is not playing any fewer minutes than them. First with Koeman and now with Xavi, he is getting minutes and chances in different midfield roles - perhaps also to better understand how to develop him given that he is simply referred to as just a ‘talent’ for now. In the youth academy and Barcelona B, he played as a mezzala but was then moved back to being a midfielder in front of the defense since the beginning of last season. He was seen as Busquets’ heir and subsequently promoted to the first team.

But he only has some aspects of his game that are in common with Busquets and his role is slightly different. If only Nico was more physically powerful, plus he is still learning the patient work of positioning in stopping the opposition scoring as Busquets does. He does however have an unbalanced relationship with the ball compared to his tall physique: Nico controls the ball in tight spaces like a player with a low center of gravity, but this probably came before he grew up one summer and found himself with long legs and big shoulders. But even with the ball Nico is much more mobile than Busquets and is used to breaking the lines not only with his passing but also with his ball management.

Indeed, it can be said that his best performance in the first team was when he was deployed as a mezzala, with the freedom to move forward and run, instead of remaining anchored to the defense to give continuity to the game. But even if he does refine his skills and improves his reading of the game, it does not mean that he will not come out in front of the defense at Barcelona, especially as the technical and physical midfielder is seen as Busquets’ heir. If there is a moment in history where the Blaugrana can afford to give a player many minutes and wait for him to develop then now is probably the time.

Noni Madueke, 2002, PSV (England)

If you stare too long at a photo of Noni Madueke, you are likely to feel the urge to look down. So hard are his eyes and so much personality he has shown on the pitch and in career choices, rejecting Manchester United and leaving the Tottenham youth setup to go to the Netherlands with PSV.

After a year and a half, in the 2020-21 season, Madueke exploded: with 7 goals and 4 assists in 24 appearances he had his contract renewed and got to wear the number 10 shirt for the current season. Precisely when he was at his best, however, the injuries arrived; he has had three this year, all muscular, which made him lose two months of play and caused Roger Schmidt and the PSV bosses to worry. It’s paradoxical that his weakness lies in his strong point: his strong legs allow him to overtake opponents at speed, with monstrous power in his first few steps combined with the technical ability to protect the ball even in tight spaces, all of which is probably the origin of his injuries.

Schmidt had also complimented Madueke for his tactical intelligence, for his ability to read the situation and position himself. He makes him play on the right, opposite to his foot, with the freedom to enter the half-space to receive the ball with his back to the goal. As mentioned, thanks to the strength he has it is not a problem if he receives the ball with an opponent behind him, neither is it a problem for him to stay wide to drive at the opposing full-back. In this second type of situation, his opponents have no escape: Madueke can go inside and look for the shot or cross to the left, or go very fast along the wing and put the ball in from the right.

He’s still a bit limited technically with his right foot and while he is very creative when dribbling he’s not as creative with his finishing, but the biggest question mark is about his physical condition. There is no doubt that Madueke will grow while playing at this level and with this continuity. The only thing we can wish him in 2022 is that his muscles will leave him alone for a while (and who knows if Southgate will notice him at some point, too).

Piero Hincapiè, 2002, Bayer Leverkusen (Ecuador)

Piero Hincapié has a beautiful surname, which translates to emphasis, focus on or highlight. A surname that suits him, especially given the meaning of the phrase “hacer hincapié”, which would be “to focus on”-“persist”. The beauty is the mix between the blend between the concept of concentration and the way that the Ecuadorian center-backs’ presence is felt on the pitch.

Discovered during a beach football tournament, Hincapié grew up in that fantastic laboratory of youthful ideas and development that is at Independiente del Valle. Together with Moises Caicedo, another young and promising La Tri player who has already arrived in Europe, he won the U20 Libertadores, but just as it went for Caicedo, the doors of the first team didn’t open as they perhaps should have. Piero, who could lack anything but courage, then decided to move to Argentina, where "el Cacique" Medina gave him responsibility, shaped him into something rough and made him motivated.

That season he played in Argentina, as an eighteen-year-old with not even 150 minutes at senior level, made him rise, so much so that Gustavo Alfaro, in his journey to reconstruct Ecuador’s football identity - that inevitably went through a squad rejuvenation - focused very strongly on him in the last Copa América.

He came as an absolute rookie, but he played all the games as a starter, without coming off, until the second round, against Argentina, where he was sent off for a foul on "el Fideo" Di Maria.

In those four games, however, he showcased not only a first-rate ‘bulldog’ skill set but also and above all what seems to be his most important characteristic, which best defines him, is namely his elegance and calmness in the initial attack phase when starting from the back, with the skill at his feet being crucial when moving around the pitch. Hincapié touched the ball 89 times in Copa América, more than any other defender. And he did it with the naturalness of someone who grew up playing, as he himself says, as a creative driving force, with a 10 on his back.

Seeing him on the pitch he looks like a level-headed, grounded and methodical boy who is kind of a Lucio 2.0 at Leverkusen. He says of himself that he is “de verde y de pescado”, which must not even be an Ecuadorian saying, but more likely from Esmeraldas, the place where he comes from, meaning that he is a simple type of person. His plays are simple and always intelligent, both in the initial phase and when on the break. With Leverkusen, on his debut in the Europa League, he immediately scored.

With Ecuador in November, against Venezuela, he put in a monstrous performance with his first goal. His time at Leverkusen will only be mentioned in passing. He is used to forging ahead and playing in the suffocating snowstorm game in Germany, which can only make him one of the most interesting central defenders of the future.

Ilya Zabarnyi, 2002, Dynamo Kiev (Ukraine)

A year and a half ago, at the start of the 2020-21 season, Dynamo Kiev were short of central defensive players and Lucescu, instead of looking to the market, focused on an 18-year-old from the youth academy, Ilya Zabarnyi, launching him in the league and Champions League. Shortly after, in October 2020, Shevchenko called him up to the Ukrainian national team, handing him his debut in the unfortunate 7-1 defeat to France. This year is his second season as a starter and at the age of 19, Zabarnyi has already played almost 40 games in the Russian Premier Liga (won last year) and almost 20 with the national team (including Euro 2020). There has been talk of interest from Milan and Napoli but also from Chelsea, so it should not be long before we see him in a richer league compared to the Russian top flight.

Once again, the best quality for a young defender seems to be maturity, both in defensive readings (Zabarnyi holds his position, occupies a lot of the field with his height and if he’s not sure of the attack then he prefers to avoid the duel) and in ball management. His technical qualities allow him to launch the ball far, especially diagonally to the left, but also to dribble (recently, against Bayern Munich, he eased past the pressure of Leroy Sané with some heel control), just as it’s not easy to get past him in a one-on-one. However, he can be a bit rigid with his movement, being one meter ninety tall, but he is rather quick with his first steps and agile when it is necessary to intervene.

After three minutes of the Champions League match with Barcelona, Depay shot from near the penalty spot but Zabarnyi blocked him like a second goalkeeper. This defensive awareness, and the calmness with which he manages the ball, could make Zabarnyi an elite defender, perhaps costing the best teams in Europe the price of a center forward.

Matteo Cancellieri, 2002 Hellas Verona (Italy)

After a wonderful season in the Primavera, with 15 goals and 9 assists in just 18 games of absolute domination, Matteo Cancellieri seemed to be able to make his way into Di Francesco's new Verona, who were looking for identity following the transfer market and a very different coach from the previous one.

Against Sassuolo, on the first day, he came on in the second half, showing a sense of liveliness that could be useful. Deployed as a right-winger, with Verona behind in the game, he set Zaccagni up for the goal within ninety seconds of coming on, with a pass that few of us would have seen. Di Francesco had even suggested starting him against Inter and had shown real appreciation of Cancellieri’s qualities on several occasions. With the arrival of Tudor, however, he featured a lot less, even though he started in the Italian Cup against Empoli, scoring his first goal at a professional level.

Cancellieri comes from AS Roma’s football school (he was the ball boy pushed by a Shakhtar player in the round of 16 of the 2017/18 Champions League), one of the best in Italy, and was included in the exchange that brought Kumbulla to the Giallorossi. He’s a very fast forward, both in tight areas and in the channels, and likes to start from the right to then move onto his left. Against the Republic of Ireland U21s, he scored after a restart from Italy’s penalty area, accelerating between opponents to receive the ball in space. But he’s also a striker who sees the goal, who shoots well from distance or from a standing position but can also run into the area and assert his physical strength. 

Having played a few minutes in the first team, it’s difficult to understand how much his superiority over his peers can translate to the top level, but there is hope: Cancellieri is the type of striker that Italy produces very rarely and his growth could be excellent news for both Verona and the Azzurri.

Lazar Samardzic, 2002, Udinese (Germany)

Before the start of the season, we had defined Samardzic as "the most intriguing arrival" for Udinese: “19 years old, and twelve months ago, after three first-team appearances for Hertha Berlin, he was considered one of the most shining talents in German football. With the number ten on his back and a very sweet left foot, RB Leipzig got him to sign a five-year contract. They had beaten competition from Chelsea, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. A year and 7 appearances for the first team later, Samardzic ended up at Udinese for €3 million.

He’s not even twenty years old so it’s impossible to speak of “decline” or “failure”, but perhaps more of a “mystery”. The mystery also continued in the black and white jersey: less than 150 minutes played in the league interrupted by flashes of pure talent. An assist against Atalanta from a corner. A goal against Spezia where he showed all his qualities. The ability to link play as an attacking midfielder. The illusionistic use of the sole of his foot and the inside of the foot to evade opponents. The clean shot with what theoretically should be his weak foot. It's not just a question of beauty, but also of weight: with Samardzic's assist and goal in the league, Udinese took home four points instead of one. So why does the German talent continue to feature so little on the pitch?

In mid-December, Samardzic played his first full game as a starter, against Crotone in the Italian Cup, and once again the wait was not a disappointment: spread over all 90 minutes the experience of seeing him play has become exciting, with a whole repertoire of nutmegs, through balls, technical control with both feet and an assist from a corner. A good sign for Samardzic in 2022 or just an isolated case? In the new year, the German talent must first hope that Cioffi takes him into consideration more than Gotti did. We are not even sure who will gain in the end.

Adam Hlozek, 2002, Sparta Prague (Czech Republic)

Is this the moment again where the youth of the Czech Republic are among the most interesting in Europe? Adam Hlozek at 20 years of age is on the shortlist of many great teams, all ready to be amazed by the offensive talent of a player of 188 centimeters who can play winger or as an ‘out and out’ striker. He has already got 15 goals and 7 assists for Sparta Prague, all in just 19 games, due to injury.

The Czech league may not be the most competitive in the world but seeing him bully opposing defenders with the ease of someone who just got up is impressive. Hlozek is a force of nature: when he kicks the ball, he seems to want to explode it, and while it is in flight, even though it is not a lightning bolt, you have to do your best to knock it down if you want to stop it. All this strength means Hlozek has a non-ordinary technique. This season, where he’s playing less as a center-forward, he has already provided 10 assists (the best in the Czech league by margin).

In his locker, he’s got dribbling ability, a taste for eye-opening play and a refined foot, and in short, he does not seem to lack anything. At the moment, he lives between two souls, the center forward one and the winger one and perhaps he has to find his future as soon as possible. If at 16 he refused offers from Bayern Munich and Arsenal to grow with his home club, then now the time has come for Hlozek to be in a more competitive league (West Ham, which has a preferential channel with Czech football, seems interested in taking him as early as January). Because soon he could become unplayable in the Czech Republic, but it is with the best in the world that he must compete if he is to really grow and see what level he can reach. His introduction, so far, has been excellent.

Ryotaro Araki, 2002, Kashima Antlers (Japan)

The two best Japanese talents have grown up and already play in Europe, both curiously owned by Real Madrid: Kubo (now on loan to Mallorca) and Nakai (still in the youth setup). But in Japan, 2021 was the year of Araki who, unlike the aforementioned two, was practically unknown until 2020, as up until two years ago he was playing in his high school team. It must be said that the setup for high school teams (which still have good organization and structures) is common in Japan, a practice also shown in the Captain Tsubasa cartoon where school teams play in stadiums full of fans (which just happens in the national tournament finals, in reality). Araki signed only once of age with the Kashima Antlers, one of the greats of the J.League, immediately becoming an integral part of the first team.

The first year he made 29 appearances (including 8 as a starter), playing mainly as a winger, scoring 2 goals and providing 4 assists. In the second he exploded: 46 games, 13 goals and 8 assists, with the double figure of goals in the league being a record for a teenager that was held since 1994 (in Japan). He can do this by being able to switch between playing as a winger (both on the right and on the left) and a second striker in a 4-4-2, but he has ended up playing more in attack, perhaps given the ease with which he manages to make things happen.

Watching him play you immediately notice his control in tight areas and the ease with which he can control the ball, which is a skill that actually feels a bit wasted when he starts too wide from the area. Also, his shooting is already accurate and he sees the goal from all angles. Araki is not able to withstand the toughest of markers physically, due to his physique, but does have strong legs, a simple but effective technique in controlling the ball and quick movements that allow him to fight and not be scared in front of the opponent. 2022 will be the year in which Araki will have to confirm his level as a rising star in the championship in a role in which he can also play for the chance to be called up for the next World Cup. From there, the move to Europe already seems to be a path that has been traced.

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